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- 09 -092016

Rouget de Lisle & La Marseillaise : episode 13

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A “Living Embodiment of La Marseillaise”

In 1905, Louise-Anthelmine Chenal, also known as Marthe Chenal (1881-1947) won first prize of singing and opera at the Conservatoire National de Musique de Paris. The following year, she made her professional debut at the Opéra de Paris. She then joined the Opéra-Comique in 1908.

In August 1914, she volunteered as a nurse. On 20 August 1914, she sung La Marseillaise for the first time during a benefit concert held for reservists and wounded soldiers. She performed both on the home front and on the front lines, in particular on the stage of the “Front Theatre” where she became extremely successful among the “Poilus”. The French government also asked her to take part in propaganda missions on the Italian Front.

Reciting or singing La Marseillaise on stage was not new and a great number of French celebrities had already done so, such as the actress Rachel (1821-1858) as early as 1848, the soprano Marie Sass (1834-1907) under the Second Empire and the actress Agar (1832-1891) during the 1870’s. Each of them made their appearance by firmly holding the flagpole of French flag tight.

On Sunday 6 December 1914, following the authorization of the re-opening of all show places in Paris, La Marseillaise was performed in all the theatres. At the Comédie-Française, following his Horace performance, the dramatic actor Jean Mounet-Sully (1841-1916) recited La Marseillaise as he would had done during the national celebrations of July, 14. The same applied at the Opéra-Comique where at the end of her performances Marthe Chenal “sung the national anthem with her captivating and resonant voice, spreading her arms wide open to display a large flag to emerge at its centre as the personified goddess of Victory”.

The drawing on the postcard reproduced here was realised in 1914 by Georges Scott (1873-1943) who drew his inspiration from a photograph of the celebrated opera singer. Published on 12 December 1914 in the French illustrated magazine L’Illustration, Scott added a touch of colour, in the background soldiers of the French Revolution and two bunches of flowers bouquets at the MA_BA_marseillaise_1304foreground. Widely reproduced all across France, this drawing inspired many other singers.

On the photograph on the upper top, Marthe Chenal is crowned by a laurel crown, symbol of Victory. Her make-up and her open mouth strongly are reminiscent of the features of La Marseillaise of the arc de triomphe de l’Étoile sculpted by François Rude.

The series of photographs were taken by French photographer Henri Manuel (1847-1947) who was an official war photographer until 1944. He also made studio-portraits of leading personalities from the political and cultural fields in his studio located in the 7th arrondissement in Paris.

On the evening of 11 November 1918, standing of the balcony of the Opéra de Paris–today Opéra Garnier–the prima donna sung La Marseillaise in front of Georges Clemenceau and a huge audience.

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